Alain Resnais offers a glimpse into the archival machine of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. As a work of film, despite its purpose as a documentary, it is meticulously crafted. Each shot has a distinct geometry, and the film has a strong visual rhythm. The documentary even creates suspense and anxiety. But there is much more to it. The film establishes the importance of preserving material, in that the values of their ideas have not yet been realized. Resnais depicts the onus of handing millions of materials, offering a reverent view into the operation of the library. He anthropomorphizes the books, referring to them as “prisoners” marching where they need to go, under the strict rule of staff carrying out law.
This film is very timely for me. I recently stumbled upon the microfilm archive in Rotch Library. Its placement in the corner of the basement level spoke to its fading value with the emergence of electronics resources. Ironically, these archives will last far greater (~500 years) than the electronic or paper archives that overwhelm them. I stood staring at them, contemplating the time, expense, and care that had been taken to fill the drawers of reels, only to have them neglected. Their sight terrified me. Their potential most certainly unfulfilled, there is nothing preventing them from being purged at the whim of the library system. More immediately, the images and words we feed into the electronic abyss daily is unlikely to last even ten years. I think often about the information disciplines were are developing along with the cloud and modern computing systems, patterns which do not give the viewers control over the data. So ironically, as we produce and disseminate materials faster than ever in history, our methods of preservations become exponentially weaker.